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‘Groundbreaking’ First Responder Negligence Verdict in New Jersey worth $6 Million

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Trenton, NJIn the first verdict of its kind in the State of New Jersey, a jury awarded the estate of a young mother $6 million after finding that first responders were negligent in treating a patient who was in distress. The 20-year-old patient did not survive, leaving an infant without a mother. The verdict in the first responder negligence lawsuit is considered groundbreaking.

Court heard that the victim, Toniquea Rivers, had given birth to a premature baby in the hospital, and subsequently collapsed at her home about a week later. Paramedics were called, with first responders employed by Capital Health System Inc. attending to the stricken woman and placing a breathing tube in the patient, who was transported back to hospital in an ambulance.

Sadly, Rivers died in the hospital later that day. According to the complaint, medical staff at the hospital noted that Rivers had been duly intubated, but that the endotracheal tube had been placed incorrectly.

A first responder malpractice lawsuit was filed in January, 2014 by the father of Rivers’ child on behalf of the estate and Rivers’ infant child. Plaintiff Larry Howlen, who also served as administrator for Rivers’ estate, brought negligence claims against paramedics who treated Rivers as first responders. Howlen also brought additional claims against the physician who authorized that Rivers be discharged from hospital following the birth of her child in spite of ‘concerning’ signs of respiratory issues and cardiac concerns, according to the complaint.

The physician was subsequently cleared of any wrongdoing, as were two paramedics who faced individual claims. However, the jury hit Capital Health System Inc. with a $6 million judgement in the case, awarding $4 million in damages to Rivers’ estate and $2 million to her child for loss of past and future services and companionship.

The attorney who represented Rivers’ estate in the case noted in comments to Law360 (09/28/17) that support services providers are afforded qualified immunity to civil litigation. Thus, said Joshua Van Naarden of Ross Feller Casey LLP, “you have to not only prove negligence, but [also] failure to act in good faith.

“For that reason, there has never been a verdict against [advanced life support services providers] in New Jersey, so I think it’s a landmark decision in that regard.”

The jury in the two-week trial deliberated for nine hours before announcing their verdict. Capital Health was found to have failed to act in good faith, and that the health provider’s conduct increased the risk of harm to Rivers and substantially contributed to the young mother’s death.

It was reported that Capital Health did not respond to a request for comment. It is not known if the defendant intends to appeal.

The trial concluded on September 26, with the announcement of the verdict.

The case is Larry Howlen et al. v. Ronald Burbella MD et al., Case No. L-214-14, in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Mercer County.

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